"The Sovereign State Feels the Heat
Volume 22 No. 1
Published in November 2020
However you look at it, the modern state is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of climate change.
Dr Daniel Matthews
of the Faculty of Law is an admirer of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who defined sovereignty as it is commonly understood: escaping nature under the security and protection of the state through a social contract. Hobbes was writing 400 years ago and today, the cracks are showing.
“Hobbes was extraordinarily creative in rethinking how we define political authority,” Dr Matthews
said. “But even though sovereignty is back big time, with Brexit and the rise of populism being examples, I see that as a real dead end for dealing with the challenges of climate change.
“Climate change does not respect state borders and many of its effects are non-anthropocentric, impacting on a range of non-human forces and relations described by geology and ecology. Modern politics is really bad at being sensitive to these forces.”
has been tracking these shortfalls as a scholar of the history and theory of sovereignty and sees problems in all three components that define sovereignty: territorial, populational and institutional.
Getting people to see the world differently, both in the visual and contemplative sense, will not be easy. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a glimpse of the challenges. “We’ve seen a reassertion of national borders, concentration of power in the hands of the executive, greater emphasis on who gets the privilege of citizenship and who doesn’t. I fear we will see repeats of this in future climatic crises,” he said.
Dr Matthews hearkens back to Hobbes, who was also exploring how politics could be reorganised in a changing world. “This idea that we have to deny our attachments to the natural world in order to create a distinct political sphere is precisely what needs to be reversed. But the way things are going at the moment doesn’t make me massively hopeful,” he said.
“Radical changes need to take place. It can’t be business as usual. Exactly how these changes will be instituted, no one knows. In my own work, I’m hoping to point out the limitations of the existing coordinates that define modern sovereignty and encourage critical and creative thinking about the changing nature of political authority in the context of climatic transformation.”
The Aesthetics of Sovereignty in the Anthropocene will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021. Click here to read the full text.
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